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Travel: A slow narrowboat back to a gentler time on a delightful canal break

© PA Photo/Ben MitchellBoats moored along  Llangollen Canal
Boats moored along Llangollen Canal

I call out from our narrowboat to a man on a mobility scooter who is overtaking us on the towpath: “Is that the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct ahead?”

“Yes, and don’t worry,” he replies. “There’s a pub on the other side!”

As I edge on to the magnificent aqueduct, barely wider than our boat and with no barrier to my left, I look down over the 126ft drop to the River Dee below and feel the butterflies in my stomach. This daredevil crossing is enough to turn even a teetotaller to drink.

“Straighten up, you’re going to hit the side,” my panicked partner shrieks while my daughter laughs with glee, although I notice she’s standing on the side next to the towpath so she could easily step off if a calamity should actually occur.

We edge forward slowly across the 1,007ft-long aqueduct which, built in 1795, is the highest and longest in the UK and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, until we finally reach the canal basin on the other side and I feel palpably relieved.

But if I thought this was time to relax, I was wrong – there is always a challenge ahead when narrow-boating.

© PA Photo/Ben Mitchell
Llangollen

I am now faced with a 90-degree turn to go under a bridge with only inches to spare on either side, which requires me to utilise my hitherto unused reversing skills to manoeuvre into the impossible gap.

We somehow make it and I feel I am gradually getting the hang of steering Amelie, our 62ft-long Lautrec Narrowboat.

Just two days earlier, I had stepped onboard a canal boat for the first time and despite a thorough briefing from Paul, one of Chirk Marina’s expert team, I had set out with trepidation.

Surprisingly quickly, though, I started to get a feel for it and began to relax and take in the beautiful views; at every bend I am taken aback at how picturesque the countryside is, every bridge a potential Constable painting.

The canal feels like it cuts a line through time, transporting you into a different dimension, away from the hustle of modern life – the prison of lockdown quickly forgotten.

It brings you within brushing distance of cows dipping their noses in the water, sheep nursing their lambs, herons standing statuesque on the bank.

© PA Photo/Ben Mitchell
Chirk Marina

We set off from Chirk, near Wrexham, for this new High Life route planned by Black Prince Holidays, which takes us along the Llangollen Canal to Ellesmere, before retracing our path and up to Llangollen.

We pass through the only two locks on the route with the help of a couple of live-aboard boaters and my daughter’s energetic enthusiasm for turning the windlasses to raise the paddles – as well as learning new driving skills you pick up a whole new vocabulary while boating.

I had never imagined that a short canal boat trip could take me to such remote and different locations, from the rustic farmland of Shropshire to the rugged Welsh hills of Llangollen, and because you are fully-equipped onboard, you can moor up wherever you want – close to a pub or as far from one as you like.

We stop for the night alongside the majestic Blake Mere, a tranquil lake reflecting the forest that surrounds it, with the only disturbance made by the splash-landing of geese and ducks.

Our boat has two bedrooms, shower, two toilets, lounge, kitchen and central heating, allowing us to enjoy the dying light over the waters as we eat our home-cooked dinner.

The final waypoint of our voyage is Llangollen, where we climb to the 13th Century ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, which overlook the town like a giant silhouetted sheep, before we walk to the man-made Horseshoe Falls.

We finish our day with an ice cream in the town, where I feel jolted back into the 21st Century, having to negotiate the bustle of cars and supermarket tills once again.

But we are soon back on the water, negotiating the notorious narrows which lead out of Llangollen and back into the timeless countryside.


P.S. For more information and advice about canals and boating, visit Scottish Canals at scottishcanals.co.uk and the Canal and River Trust for England and Wales at canalrivertrust.org.uk


Factfile: Black Prince Holidays (01527 575 115; black-prince.com) offer a four-night midweek break from Chirk from £989 in May, based on up to four sharing and including one dog. Diesel is extra and costs around £10 per day.